Down to Earth: Extraordinary STEAM Learning


Mary Mattingly, A Technological Abyss, 2020, living sculpture. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

The Universe and nature are such vast and complicated concepts, but that has not stopped creative people from scrutinizing them through works of art. Visualizing the cosmos and our own Earthly phenomena has been a hotbed for artistic thinking and learning since the earliest forms of human expression. From making representational associations of celestial bodies (constellations) to designing sustainable interactive environments (Eco-art, land art, etc); art has been a key element to the exploration and understanding of our natural and metaphysical world. Through a combination of imagination, resourcefulness, experimentation and technology, massive and mystifying issues like cosmology and the Anthropocene are contextualized into a tangible visions that have potential to impact viewers on a social and emotional level.

Stars Down to Earth is a two-person exhibition at the Brooklyn Library (in partnership with the Prospect Park Alliance and More Art), featuring work by Mary Mattingly and Dario Robleto. Both artists visually scrutinize scientific issues, and pose essential questions around events simultaneously happening light-years away and in our own backyards. In their respective art practices, Mattingly and Robleto adapt theories, knowledge and traditions from a spectrum of disciplines and apply them to their work in a manner that transforms abstract thoughts and occurrences into empirical methodologies. Stars Down to Earth and future iterations of this Eco-based exhibition, include experiential STEAM learning through interactive works of art, artist talks and workshops focused on the integration of art and science.

Robleto’s sculptures are carefully researched cabinets of curiosity, which artfully re-frame objects and events from the past into a futuristic vision of mortality and human nature. He achieves this by creating hybrid forms out of unlikely combinations of artifacts and experiences. One of his early works of art is titled You Make My World a Better Place to Find (1996-1998). From a glance, it resembles a spool of thread, but overall, the work is indicative of a performative sculpture that literally threads a spectrum of human beings together. The artwork was created by discreetly acquiring pieces of lint and other small strand-like materials from friends and strangers. Upon collecting these materials, Robleto fashioned them together into one long string, which he spooled. With the newfound material, he tailored and sewed things like loose buttons and ripped clothing back together. From a symbolic standpoint, it suggests that fixing our broken world lies within the collective engagement of finding restorative ways to be united. As a species, we have the ability to mend overarching issues if we combine individual forces and discover the power in supporting each other’s diverse qualities and experiences.


Installation of Dario Robleto’s work in Stars Down to Earth at the Brooklyn Library. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

Robleto is currently collaborating with scientists as an artistic consultant to a project called “Breakthrough Message,” a multi-national endeavor that seeks to determine how and what humans should communicate to extraterrestrial beings. Perhaps two of his archival prints Untitled (Shadows Evade the Sun I) and Untitled (Shadows Evade the Sun II) would be apt. The prints are inspired by the ethereal elements of 1960s and 70s arena performances. Robleto culminated photographs taken by fans at Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke, The Doors, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Lena Horne, Janis Joplin, Charlie Parker and Elvis Presley concerts; and arranged them so that they represent gradient beams of light, akin to atmospheric and celestial glows. The imagery would be at once recognizable to all beings who shared the same night sky. However, our musical subcultures might be less familiar to an intelligent being from beyond Earth. It could be a nice and poetic way to explain to an alien life form how the creation and immersion of art illuminates our cultural realms.


Dario Robleto, Untitled (Shadows Evade the Sun I), 2012. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

Mattingly’s artistic focus is rooted in ecological development and issues of sustainability on our planet. She creates works of art that illuminate the growing climate crisis, as well as the unsustainable use of organic materials and natural resources for economic and political purposes. Her magnum opus is Swale, an ongoing floating ‘food forest,’ which provides sustainable and healthy nutrition, and raises consciousness about building self-sufficient food communities within urban environments. Additionally, she has created and/or co-created sustainable public habitats, such as the Foodway in Concrete Plant Park, and the Waterpod Project.


Mary Mattingly’s Cobalt and Nature Morte photographs. Installation photograph of Stars Down to Earth at the Brooklyn Library. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

Another project by Mattingly, is an inquiry into the reaping of cobalt, a natural Earth material that is used to make highly profitable products. There is both a creative and destructive impetus for mining cobalt, as evident from its extensive uses, including powering energy turbines and making paint and weaponry. Cobalt-based blue pigments are well known and valuable to artists, while cobalt ore is beneficial to expanding the military industrial complex. The harvesting of massive amounts of cobalt involves  extraction practices that are contributing to climate change and displacement. Mattingly’s material-based explorations, discoveries and insights into Cobalt (2016), reveal stark contrasts involving our reliance on natural resources. Artifacts from Cobalt and her aerial landscape photographs depicting extractive industries, are on display at the Brooklyn Library. Also on view is Mattingly’s A Technological Abyss (2020), a spherical living sculpture that displays and nurtures plants that were growing over 50 million years ago (during the Eocene Epoch) in the region that is now New York. The Eocene was a period of warm oceans and balmy, humid temperatures throughout the globe (the world was practically ice-less from pole-to-pole). The sculpture also holds plants that would survive in New York, if the current rate of expedited global warming continues. Both sets of plants are of the tropical tolerant variety. The parallel between the volatile climate of the Eocene (which led to an extinction event) and the Anthropocene, reinforces the idea that we are heading into a very dire moment in our Earth’s history.

After its display at the library, Mattingly’s living sculpture is going to be installed in nearby Prospect Park (April – June, 2020). While on view in the park, the sculpture will be a setting for additional experiential art programing focusing on issues of clean water. Produced by More Art and in collaboration with local community groups, Public Water is a multisite public art and educational project addressing the ways citizens of New York are connected through complex watersheds that provide drinkable/functional water to upstate and downstate residents. These projects are intended to prompt us to enact ecological ways of learning, making and being, in order to improve our contemporary commons so that facets of biological life that are currently threatened stand a chance of survival.

Mattingly is intrigued by the idea of the commons, which are resources that are accessible to the collective society and are not owned by one single entity (i.e. water, air and soil). Commons are generally maintained by a community of benefactors who develop institutions and systems that have value and offer benefits for multiple users. Swale, Foodway and the Waterpod Project are good examples of commons, because they make healthy soil, clean water and organic food available to the public; and also provide equitable access to an ecological-centered education, so that groups and individuals (of all ages and backgrounds) can utilize common natural resources in a sustainable and ethical manner. A Technological Abyss and Public Water is also based on the idea of the commons. The sculpture is currently located in front of the Info Commons at the Brooklyn Library, which hosts free space and opportunities for the public to access an array of multimedia and professional services. When Public Water arrives at Prospect Park, it will reinforce and build upon (the parks architect) Frederick Law Olmsted’s socially engaged vision of making natural resources and communal recreational space abundant to urban populations. Throughout the course of the project, visitors will participate in dialogues that reflect their personal narratives related to ecological commons and raising concerns about the quality of water and preservation of common waterways. In tandem with artists, educators and environmental advocates, the public will discover innovative ways to collectively build awareness around environmental justice.

As we have begun to see from the aforementioned examples, Mattingly and Robleto’s art reveals how art, science and engineering can successfully interrelate with one another. Each artist’s work poses essential questions such as: how can the artistic practice transform and evolve through working outside of the art field? How can art be harnessed to change the way science is performed?

Developing lifelong inquiries and ethical innovations is a major objective of combining the arts, science and technology into an insightful and participatory-based educational framework (STEAM). The arts give us the permission and tools to think boldly and manipulate materials in a manner that adds an emotional and unique human element to the scientific method. Echoing a quote by astronomer Carl Sagan (from his publication Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, 1980), “imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere,” Mattingly and Robleto have employed their artistic skills to contribute to disciplines such as ecology and astronomy, with actual scientific results to show for it.

Back to Nature: Learning about ecosystems of the past and building future ecological awareness


Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, 1836, oil on canvas. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Some people call New York City a ‘concrete jungle.’ This metaphor refers in part to the city’s lack of greenery and the plethora of large concrete and glass structures in its stead. However, New York City was once a lush natural environment and our urbanization of the land has displaced generations of natural growth. The large swaths of commuters, tourists and residents that hustle and bustle across the metropolis probably don’t often think of a pre-colonial Manhattan and the diverse island ecosystem that existed.

We can learn a lot from artworks that re-present the lost ecosystem of the city. Michael Wang and Alan Sonfist both incorporate scientific processes into their artistic practice. Their work aims to raise our awareness about how post-industrial human beings have transformed, molded and largely stripped the land of its natural essence. Through bringing the results of their scientific research into cultural spaces, their work invites us to view an ecosystem that once did not have to be nurtured by an artist. Our consumer-driven interactions with the world around us have made these artworks necessary in order to experience the landscapes of the past.

Artists throughout history have become awestruck by nature and portray it in all its glory and lushness. The paintings of the Hudson River School artists depict nearly pristine views of America’s landscape right as the industrial revolution transformed forests and valleys into sprawling towns and large cities. These artists were rebelling against what they saw as a grave danger to humanity: our sociocultural and economic influence on the environment. Wang’s Extinct in New York (2019-ongoing) and Sonfist’s Time Landscape (1965-present) attempt to revive the actual ecological features of New York City that have been erased by urbanization and consumerism.

Wang and Sonfist use natural resources as their art materials. Their work begins with analysis of quantitative data, historical accounts and archival imagery.  Thanks to the careful documentation by both artists and scientists, Sonfist and Wang were able to fulfill their objectives to re-present New York City’s lost and disappearing fauna.

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Michael Wang, Extinct in New York. Installation photograph at LMCC’s Arts Center at Governors Island. Courtesy of LMCC and Sacks & Co.

Extinct in New York, which was just recently on display at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s (LMCC) Arts Center on Governors Island, creates a space where viewers can observe live specimens of specific native plants, algae and lichen that have vanished from New York City’s ecosystem. Wang’s extensive research accompanies the live specimens in a publication detailing the name of each plant, algae or lichen, and the last time it was found in its natural setting. The installation of these specimens resembles a greenhouse laboratory and, sure enough, it requires nurturing care from gallery staff, local students and volunteers. When the project is de-installed, the goal is to re-introduce the plants, algae and lichen to the land where they once grew unrestrained. The irony is that now they will require the care of human beings in managed spaces like urban community gardens and public parks. Alongside the live materials, Wang displays photographs and botanical drawings that document and express the traces of nature and its ephemerality.


Alan Sonfist, Time Landscape, 1965-present, site-specific land art. Courtesy of the artist.

Time Landscape recreates a pre-colonial natural forest, which would have provided sustenance, shelter and community to the indigenous peoples of what is now the five boroughs. Sonfist designed a plot of land, which is located at the northeast corner of La Guardia Place and West Houston Street in downtown Manhattan, to resemble the likeness of a natural forest that would have been observed prior to European interference. The initial planting process depicted the three phases of natural forest growth: seeds to saplings to grown trees and mature plants. Now, the land artwork is ripe with old growth and is even susceptible to post-colonial species of fauna (which are periodically weeded out by Parks Department workers). Time Landscape is a living sculpture, which could also be considered as a memorial to a past ecological epoch. It raises our social, emotional and cognitive awareness to the prowess and fragility of our natural world.


Alan Sonfist, Time Landscape, 1965-present. Courtesy of the artist.

In the Anthropocene era, it is important that our educational settings provide real-world and hands-on learning scenarios for students to explore, discover and make insightful responses to the environment. In order to do this, teachers will likely require support from their administration and professional development to learn ways that they can incorporate environmental issues into their curriculum.

Brooklyn College’s Graduate Art Education program has implemented a Summer course called Human Tracks in the Urban Landscape, which focuses on inquiry-based pedagogical frameworks that current and future art and science educators can use in their classrooms. Using Prospect Park as both a case study and experiential site, the course combines classroom discussions where educators learn the natural history of New York’s ecology, with on-site and studio based explorations, such as projects, installations and performances. At the end of the course, educators produce multi-disciplinary projects that combine artistic and scientific processes and address a specific ecological topic of interest.


Shauna Woods Gonzalez, Bill Vaughn, Adam Zucker, Pick-up Picnic, 2017, London Plane bark, litter, edible native and invasive plants gathered and foraged from Prospect Park.


Shauna Woods Gonzalez, Bill Vaughn, Adam Zucker, detail of Pick-up Picnic, 2017, London Plane bark, litter, edible native and invasive plants gathered and foraged from Prospect Park.

When I took this course in its inaugural year (2017), my team (consisting of three art educators including myself) researched the history of foraging in New York City parks and came up with a list of edible plants that thrived in Prospect Park. We focused on native and invasive species that could be foraged and utilized by local communities as nutritional sources of food, as well as ways to sustainably interact with the park’s natural resources. We created a temporary site-specific installation and performance, where we juxtaposed the park’s useful natural elements with the abundance of consumer-based refuse (fast food wrappers, plastic bottles and junk food scraps) that were littered throughout the landscape. The result was a ‘picnic’ of foraged plants and trash. The idea for this installation started with an adverse reaction to being in the park. I could not enjoy myself because I was preoccupied with the amount of litter strewn across the natural space. The trash was distracting me from the abundant paths that surrounded us. I tried to move forward, but I kept thinking ‘how could we let our natural oasis get this way?’ As an artist, my concerns are visualizing and documenting experiences that focus on our accountability to our surroundings.


My strong reaction to the amount of garbage in Prospect Park led me to wonder why there isn’t a campaign to promote the clean and sustainable use of the park as a natural resource within the urban ecology. There are lots of plants for anyone in the city to enjoy for medicinal, culinary or other purposes (like creating fabrics and dyes). Ultimately, we need to take in knowledge about the natural scenery and take out the litter that threatens our local resources. We can promote a healthy relationship by thinking about what we consume and how it affects the environment. Learning to forage is one of the best things that I have learned, especially because mushrooms in particular are quite pricey in city markets! I hope more people will trust what is available around them in nature versus what is pre-packaged and mass-consumed. Perhaps through the incorporation of art and ecology curricula within our city’s schools, generations of students will gain expertise regarding the use of natural resources and become stewards to the ecosystems that exist within the urban landscape.

Artful Qualitization: Ecotones


Meghann Riepenhoff
Installation view of Meghann Riepenhoff: Ecotone
© Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Meghann Riepenhoff’s cyanotypes prints combine the physicality and symbolic nature of art making in conjunction with Mother Nature’s expressive forces. This collaboration is an awe-inspiring presentation of the clash between environmental cycles and humanity. The cyanotypes are reactions to changing environments due to human interaction and other forces. The prints are part artistic exploration and part scientific experimentation. They are qualitative interpretations of the quantitative data and scientific analysis that measure weather patterns, natural cycles and humanity’s environmental impact.

Riepenhoff’s choice of medium and materials are in dialogue with the past and present fields of aesthetics and science. Cyanotypes are well suited for studying the living environment, as well as producing works of art. Invented in the early-mid 19th century, the alternative photographic process was popularized by Anna Atkins, a botanist and photographer from England. Atkins utilized cyanotypes as a way to document the intricacies of plants and other natural objects by combining her astute eye as a photographer with her knowledge of plant taxonomy. She printed limited edition books of her prints, including Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (October, 1843), which is considered to be the first book illustrated with photographs.


Meghann Riepenhoff
Installation view of Meghann Riepenhoff: Ecotone
© Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Riepenhoff’s cyanotypes offer a potent representation of the stress we put on our environment in an alluring and artful manner. For example, Littoral Drift #1170 (Polyptych, Great Salt Lake, UT 08.25.18, Lapping Waves at Shoreline of Antelope Island) was created by placing a sheet of paper prepared with cyanotype chemistry on the shoreline of the south side of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, which is experiencing record low water levels. The Great Salt Lake is divided by a causeway built in the 1950s by the Morrison-Knudsen construction company for the Southern Pacific Railroad. The causeway has restricted the flow of the water between the north and south sides, making levels of salinity uneven and affecting wildlife such as the brine shrimp population. The two sides of the lake are notably different colors and altogether the lake is characterized as an ecotone, which is defined as a region of transition where two or more distinct biological habitats abut. Riepenhoff juxtaposed the south shoreline print with works made on the opposite side of the lake, to symbolize the aesthetic difference in each region’s water composition. This process is akin to the scientific method where systematic observation and measurement are used to test a theory, in this case: what is the difference in water quality on opposite sides of the Great Salt Lake due to its status as an ecotone?


Meghann Riepenhoff
Erasure #4 (Bainbridge Island, WA 03.24.18, .23” Precipitation), 2018
Dynamic Cyanotype
Approximately 89” x 42” (226 x 106.5 cm)
© Meghann Riepenhoff, Courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Riepenhoff also explores the aesthetic and vigorous qualities of storm water in another series of cyanotypes called Erasures. These prints are made when the storm runoff hits the prepared cyanotype paper. The length of the storm and the volume of water washing away large quantities of the cyanotype chemistry, results in a light tone with marks that recall painterly brushstrokes.

Data for weather and climate in the form of graphs and Doppler imagery is something that we rely on heavily each day. These data sets tell us about what to expect, but it is often hard to envision the environmental impact of the meteorological event until it is experienced. Art has a compelling way of making implied information relevant to our sense of visual perception, while leaving room for the viewer to interpret and include experiential elements.

Riepenhoff’s artwork visualizes the intricate force and physicality of storms and the variance of ecosystems in real time. The resulting engagement with nature is a subjective approach to capturing the essence of the biosphere and our individual interactions with nature. She can’t control the strength of a wave, the duration of the rainfall or the strength of the storm, but she makes a conscious effort to decide where to place her paper and how long to leave it out in the elements. The overarching result is a body of work that traces both the environment’s volatility and the artist’s deliberate choices.

This duality between consciousness and exploration is a crux of artful learning. The arts help us to develop critical thinking and flexible purposing skills that probe and conceptualize natural and cultural phenomena. The benefit of art-centered learning in scientific research and educational curricula, is that it adds an element of lived experience and personalization to a field largely engrossed in quantitative data and academic research. Art illuminates the ways that we interact with our environment and each other, and its captivating properties can raise awareness for issues affecting our shared natural resources. This is the case for Riepenhoff’s work, which subtly and discerningly depicts our interaction with the rest of the natural world.

Selected works from the Ecotone and Erasure series are on view at Yossi Milo Gallery (245 Tenth Avenue, New York, NY 10001) through June 22, 2019.


Collaborating with Kids for a Green New World

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Ido’s hand. “My mom is an artist…we made objects we want to protect…I made a waterfall because in my generation I don’t think there will be anymore.” Photo courtesy of Melanie Daniel.

The enduring understanding among scientists is that climate change is happening all around us at an accelerated pace. Recently published climate reports from around the globe have provided the details of the effects humans have had on the Earth, and the dire consequences that are likely to occur if we don’t take action collectively.

Human-centered impact on the environment isn’t a novel theory or occurrence. Examples of ethical awareness for maintaining the world around us come from a diverse array of ancient, modern and contemporary sources, which include both historical and mythological accounts. One of these more illustrious examples is the biblical narrative of Noah’s Ark, which is a cautionary tale of how humans corrupted the once pristine landscape by disrespecting its natural resources, as well as one another. While the tale of Noah’s Ark is one of fiction, the idea that our actions have consequences on the world around us is blatantly evident. Throughout the human timeline, species and civilizations have come and gone due to human behaviors such as over hunting, warfare, industrialization and pollution.

Today’s generations face a serious quandary in light of the global crisis of environmental decline. We have witnessed the decline of 60% of the worlds wildlife population between 1970 and 2014 (see: WWF, 2018). The causes for such catastrophic events largely include the abuse of wildlife and natural resources for human profit or personal gain (i.e. trophy hunting, factory farming, deforestation of unique ecosystems).


‘Help the elephants.’ Photo courtesy of Melanie Daniel

In the educational sphere, some liberal arts and science curricula have evolved to include a strong ecological focus and there is overwhelming support among Americans for teaching students about climate change, although it is still a contentious issue (see: Cheskis, Marlon, Wang and Leiserowitz, 2018). The arts and natural sciences are essential disciplines where students and educators can engage in experiential learning and develop a sense of understanding about themselves and the world around them. In the process, they can explore the effects that scientific and artistic reflection and production have within our culture. Through making insightful connections to their cultural and ecological environment, they may realize the moral role they can take on as makers and become more self sufficient and cooperative in the production and sharing of resources (instead of being largely reliant on consumer goods). Hopefully they will make connections regarding their role as consumers and producers and become more aware about making ethical decisions that support the maintenance and preservation of the environment. The essential question that gets addressed through learning processes and activities is: “how can we coexist with the natural world and become effective in informing others about the need to maintain a clean and ethical relationship with the environment?” Some follow up and alternative fundamental queries include:

  • What can we learn through responding to works of art, making works of art and presenting works of art that discuss ideas about our natural environment?
  • How does learning about art, ecology, ethical maintenance and environmentalism influence how we interpret the world around us?
  • How can we use art and environmental science to engage in the larger social ecological framework?

A recent collaboration between multidisciplinary visual artist Melanie Daniel and a group of 4th graders at an environmental science school, presents compelling responses to these prompts. Daniel’s own artistic practice focuses on climate related issues and she currently holds a three year long position as the Padnos Distinguished Visiting Artist at the Grand Valley State University (GVSU) in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The residency is an endowed chair and gives Daniel a framework to do art-centered socially engaged projects with the greater community.

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Artists at work making molds. Photo courtesy of Melanie Daniel

The process for Daniel’s collaborative project with 4th graders began with each student constructing plaster hands using an alginate mold (a type of slime that hardens and can be filled with plaster or other material). The molds captured the precise details of each student’s hand, which resulted in a highly personalized sculpture. Later in the year, the students sculpted clay objects that represented a living entity in the world they wanted to protect (i.e. flora, fauna, geological formations, insects, etc.). The object that the students created sit in the palm of the hand, as if the molds of the students hands are nurturing and safeguarding the object. The hands are currently installed in the gallery at the Alexander Calder Art Center‘s Pandos Gallery at GVSU, where they are aligned in a row, providing a symbolic wall of hope. The exhibition is titled Offering.

Daniel and the students also compiled an accompanying catalogue consisting of drawings of their chosen objects and a short paragraph of why they chose that object and the significance it has to them. The students’ drawings and written responses are highly effective and while many have a humorous tone, the overarching theme is one of loss, when recognizing that perhaps some or all of these entities will no longer exist in the future. According to Daniel, the students asked poignant questions while they were working such as: “how will (future) kids know what a snake really looks like when it moves if it is extinct?”

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Student’s sculptures (installation shot). Photo courtesy of Melanie Daniel

The project has been beneficial for both the students, as well as Daniel herself. Through thinking about current issues, communicating unique ideas and making art, they developed a sense of stewardship for their surroundings. The installation reflects how the students exhibited empathy and made serious connections between their generation’s actions and the natural world. Additionally, they posited some suggestions for maintaining and repairing the world around them. Regarding the experience of working with young creative individuals, Daniel remarks: “Although I teach undergrads, it’s the little kids that blow my mind. They’re less self conscious, more engaged and deeply curious. They also have much better attention spans than their older cohorts and can apply themselves to a new task and utterly lose themselves to it.”

A reason that science and art work well as co-relational subjects in the curriculum, is that both disciplines start with imagination and employ exploration, discoveries and insights through an empirical lens and process. Essential habits of mind that are learned through science and art are: theory testing (hypothesis, inquiry, exploration of materials), flexible purposing (exploring new avenues as research/exploration leads to discoveries) and judgements in the absence of rule (both disciplines seek to break new ground in terms of how we analyze and contextualize natural phenomena).

When visual artists team up with young creative and inquiring minds, the possibilities for innovative results are enormous (as seen in the aforementioned project). One of the ways we can help our natural environment is to focus on individual and communal production methods that cut down on waste and mass consumption. Art can teach us to be sustainable (see: Kallis, 2014) and to create something unique from raw and found materials. Art also challenges us to dream big and produce ethically for the world we would like to see and experience.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Cheskis, A., Marlon, A., Wang, X., Leiserowitz, A. (2018). Americans Support Teaching Children about Global Warming. Yale University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Kallis, Sharon. 2014. Common Threads: weaving community through collaborative eco-art. British Columbia: New Society Publishers.

WWF. 2018. Living Planet Report – 2018: Aiming Higher. Grooten, M. and Almond, R.E.A.(Eds). WWF, Gland, Switzerland.

Artfully Mapping

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Nancy Graves, Untitled #127 (Drawing of the Moon), c.1972, watercolor, gouache and pencil on paper, 30 x 22 1/2 inches. (c) 2019 Nancy Graves Foundation, Inc. / Licensed by VAGA, New York; Courtesy of the Nancy Graves Foundation and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York

Nancy Graves’ art explores the connections between art, science, technology and geography. Her early 1970s conceptual paintings and drawings inspired by technological progressions in cartography, such as satellite imagery of the Earth, Moon and Mars, are currently on view at Mitchell-Innes & Nash‘s Chelsea location in New York City through April 6, 2019.

Graves’ compositions featured in the exhibition (titled Mapping), combine the aesthetic qualities of maps with scientific inquiry, in order to investigate both the aesthetic and informative nature of mapping. Her artistic process was akin to the way scientists research data, test theories and utilize technology and matter in revelatory ways. Through combining qualitative and quantitative information, Graves portrays maps as both formal abstractions and figurative representations of human explorations, insights and discoveries.

Graves’ map inspired work prompts us to think about the legibility of information, patterns in nature and our own personal bias regarding geography and technology. While science is an essential discipline for explaining the world, the arts humanize and intuit the essence of the world in ways that give gravity and symbolic meaning to scientific data.


Nancy Graves, Mars, 1973, acrylic on canvas 4 panels, overall: 96 x 288 inches. (c) 2019 Nancy Graves Foundation, Inc. / Licensed by VAGA, New York; Courtesy of the Nancy Graves Foundation and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York

One of the centerpieces in the exhibition is the mural-sized acrylic on canvas painting titled Mars (1973). The painting references NASA satellite imagery of Earth’s planetary neighbor, which was first being made public during the time that she was painting this 24 foot long composition. Graves’ painting reveals the topographic elements of Mars in a fragmented and abstract manner. This recalls the nature of how visual information is sometimes disseminated through arbitrary signals. The artist’s rendering of the satellite image, shows that data can be read both literally and figuratively.

Graves’ work is a perfect example of why STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) curricula is important within the educational sphere. With so much focus being put into learning science and technology, it is necessary at times to transcend literal authenticity and think symbolically in terms of our physical and metaphysical connection with the world. Art gives us a platform to incorporate subjectivity into objective knowledge. The inclusion of arts with other disciplines also enables us to develop and implement well rounded characteristics that can increase our ethical, social and emotional well-being. When artists make connections between art and science, they create novel ways of observing and expressing material and impressionistic views of the world. This ability to think and work within and beyond the physical and metaphysical realms can result in a springboard for innovative and empathetic undertakings.

Full STEAM ahead!

Art and education as a spiritual awakening

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Light calligraphy by Julien Breton (a.k.a Kalaam). Courtesy of the artist

Since the dawn of human existence, our species has sought and yearned to explore the very nature and meaning of life on Earth and beyond. Early human beings developed complex mythological narratives, rituals and practices, which were incorporated into the daily lives of that specific culture. Starting as early as the Upper Paleolithic period (at least around 30,000 years ago and possibly even earlier), archeologists and historians believed that rituals and belief in supernatural phenomenon (i.e. an afterlife and a pantheon of deities), played a significant role in society.

While we know little about the day-to-day experiences of Paleolithic era peoples; what we have surmised from their relics suggests that they sought to contextualize the world through a combination of natural observation and supernatural beliefs. This idea is largely reflected in art and artifacts such as cave paintings, Venus figurines and monolithic burial sites like Stonehenge. These objects and architectural sites, suggest that our early ancestors were simultaneously exploring and communicating information regarding their environmental surroundings, internal thoughts and insight into supernatural realms.

During the Neolithic revolution and thereafter (c. 4500 BC, largely starting with ancient civilizations in Sumer and Egypt), cultures embedded mythology and spiritualism within daily life as a means to try and explain natural and extraordinary phenomena.


Still image of Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting, a TV series, which featured the Carmelite nun and art historian.

Early spiritual beliefs strongly influenced scientific advances, since spirituality and science were both concerned with explaining the physical and intangible aspects of existence. Each has focused on exploring and gaining insight into the origins of life, the creation of the cosmos and the relationship between the physical and metaphysical realms. This is evident from the contributions of individuals throughout history. For example, the Ancient Greek scholar, Pythagoras contributed to theosophical ideas such as the transmigration of souls between the physical and metaphysical world, as well as his alleged mathematical discoveries (the Pythagorean Theorem) and scientific teachings (i.e. understanding that the Earth was spherical and divided into climate zones). Other scientifically and spiritually endowed individuals include the 19th century Hindu teacher Swami Vivekananda and Helena Blavastsky, the founder of the Theosophical Society (1875).

While science explores the universe through cognitive observation, experimentation (the scientific method) and peer reviewed research; spirituality synthesizes experiential and universal relationships through social and emotional expression and subjective symbolism. The artistic process is an amalgamation of scientific and spiritual practices, because it explores both the object nature of things and the more subjective aspects of life, nature and culture. Art inspires us to make valuable connections between our conscious and subconscious thoughts, and give new meaning to the way we experience and portray the act of living.

The roots of the word ‘spiritual,’ come from Latin translation, spīritus and the Indo-European root (s)peis, meaning “to breathe.” The word ‘religion,’ on the other hand, derives from the Latin root re-ligere, which translates as ‘to bind together. Clearly the words spiritual and religion are at odds. An individual cannot breath easily if they’re bound. When interpreted within a dogmatic system such as organized religion, spirituality risks suffocation as a result of objectivity and hierarchy in the doctrine of worship (see: Abbs, 2003).

According to Peter Abbs (2003), our civilization needs to transcend the more extreme ideologies and restrictions presented by organized religion, scientism (the belief that science is the ONLY absolute truth) and materialism/consumer culture. Spirituality isn’t synonymous with any organized religion and can be enjoyed within a completely secular life, which includes the public educational environment and the art world.

The late Catholic nun, Sister Wendy Beckett, might have seemed like an unlikely person to promote the separation of dogma and aesthetics, however, her unique, critical and empathetic view of art and visual culture, can teach us how to reflect better and ask big questions when confronted with challenging images and messages. While celebrating her faith in Christianity, Sister Wendy Beckett illustrated that art can either supplement the teachings of a specific faith, or provide a personal form of devotional fulfillment.

As an art historian, Sister Wendy’s unique perspective on art’s ritual and utilitarian elements has had a profound impact on the contextualization of art, spirituality and the culture at large. She was an honorable defender of the importance of art and its subjective role in communicating the essence of humanity, even if that meant going above and beyond our own comfort zones. One prime example is how she famously analyzed and gave merit to Andres Serrano’s photograph titled Piss Christ (1987), which has steadily been under attack from religious fundamentalist groups (see: Sister Wendy in conversation with Bill Moyers) since it was first displayed in the late 1980s. Along with the work of fellow photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, Serrano’s Piss Christ added fuel to America’s ‘culture wars,’ where conservative (largely religious) groups argued against works of art, music, or performance that express themes such as homosexuality, violence and sexual liberation, which they consider taboo.

Giving the aesthetic qualities and conceptual nature of Serrano’s photograph a lukewarm review, Sister Wendy recognized Piss Christ‘s poignancy, by commenting on how the artwork laments the suffering of the human spirit in light of social, cultural, psychological and spiritual corruption.

The hypocrisy of the ‘culture wars,’ is how the religious right has strayed from spiritual and moral elements, in favor or a more authoritative and political hunger. While they have attacked works of art showing subversive and/or socially liberal imagery, by claiming that they are blasphemous; they themselves engage in a demoralizing form of pedantic and oppressive behavior, which negates intersectional compassion for all human beings (ex: the condemnation of homosexuality and transgender communities).

The fulfillment of power over faith was something that Sister Wendy had been highly critical of in her lifetime. She disavowed authoritative and declarative positions of Church leaders (throughout history) in her contemporary interpretations of Christian spirituality. She recognized faith as being something that manifests in the mind and heart, and which takes into account social and emotional factors, such as expressing empathy for the human condition. She defined the Church as being a reflection of contemporary humanity and therefore, its ideals, goals and practices must change as society progresses. This philosophy draws parallels to this post’s opening argument about how spiritualism and science are largely interwoven.

In her book Sister Wendy on Prayer (2007), Sister Wendy stated that “faith does not mean ticking off our accent to Dogma, although that may pass for faith.” The irony of the Piss Christ controversy, as pointed out by Beckett, is that Serrano’s work of art, is in fact, suggesting that the culture at large is becoming burlesque and cruel through defaming spiritual virtues, which would appear in line with the principles of spiritual leaders. However, the religious right has chosen to interpret it as an attack against their Dogmatic order, and therefore has overlooked the work’s subjective symbolism, and are unwilling to have a critical discourse in regards to works of art that don’t fit their agenda.

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Sister Wendy Beckett with a work by David Hockney.

Sister Wendy’s expansive views on art and culture were further evident in her analysis and embrace of artists like David Hockney, who confidently portrays his homosexual identity within his oeuvre. When Hockney initially expressed his identity as a gay man in the United Kingdom, it was during a period in time when it was actually illegal to do so. Therefore, he took great risks both artistically and personally in order to express his humanity to the world.

Homosexuality is too often viewed as taboo and sinful within Christianity, however, like previously mentioned, Beckett recognized the need for the Church to support the progressive views of the culture at large, which most notably include sexuality. She stated: “Art only works if it comes from love,” a loaded statement, which can be interpreted in a myriad of ways, notwithstanding through both a compassionate and sensual lens. One can argue that spirituality works the same way. It is a combination of self love, love for others and a yearning to connect our humanity with a greater purpose.

Contemporary artists including Bill Viola and Kira Perov, Julien Breton (a.k.a Kalaam),  Sister Corita Kent, Jay Milder, Yayoi Kusama, Anish Kapoor and James Turrell (see: Participatory Learning: Artworks as Experiences), all incorporate a personal form of spirituality in their art practice, which is interpreted, reflected and assessed, through day-to-day rituals, prior experiences and visions that create new meaning for age-old beliefs and customs.

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Corita Kent, our father, 1964, color screenprint on Pellon, edition of 50, CAC 64‑13, sheet: 29 11/16 in x 36 in, The Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Graphic Arts Collection. Courtesy of the Portland Art Museum

Like Sister Wendy, Sister Corita Kent merged issues related to spirituality and faith within the largely secular contemporary art world. Kent was an American Roman Catholic nun, a visual artist and an educator, who ran the art department at Immaculate Heart College, a former private Catholic college in Los Angeles.

Kent’s medium of choice was printmaking, likely in part to its democratic process for producing mass information (Dammann, 2015). Her message, which no doubt derived from her faith, is a plea for love, peace and unity within the world. Kent’s style blends graphic design and pop-art sensibilities with spiritual messages that often make liberal social and political associations. By juxtaposing popular culture and mass media references with quotes from great authors/poets/musicians (Kent’s works cite Robert Frost, e.e. cummings, Albert Camus, Rainer Maria Rilke and Jim Morrison, among others) and verses from spiritual texts, Kent’s work makes all images feel sacred. For example, the print our father (1964) creates a unique spiritual psalm out of aesthetic typography and pop-culture graphics, which are sourced from the urban environment and mass media. The title draws attention to the Lord’s Prayer, which is significant as a prayer template for all Christians (it also has similarities in Jewish prayer). Kent recognized the possibility for everything around us to have a higher spiritual and humanitarian meaning.

Kent’s friend, theologian Harvey Cox, remarking about her work, said: “like a priest, a shaman, a magician, she could pass her hands over the commonest of the everyday, the superficial, the oh-so-ordinary, and make it a vehicle of the luminous, the only and the hope filled.” Kent’s incorporation of uplifting and poignant verses in a mass media inspired style, is a testament to the human spirit’s ability to overcome obstacles and trials. Noticing things deeply and attributing miracles to common place occurrences, makes profound meanings out of everyday life and provides an array of hope in light of difficult situations.

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Bill Viola and Kira Perov, Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) 2014, Color High-Definition video polyptych on four vertical plasma displays. 55″ x 133″ x 4″ (140 x 338 x 10 cm) Duration: 7:15 minutes. Courtesy of the artists.

Contemplative messages of perseverance and the audacity of hope, are also evident in Bill Viola and Kira Perov’s time-based video artworks, such as Martyrs (2014) and Mary (2016). These immersive works of art reference religious mythology and archetypal imagery, which are re-presented via a novel interpretation of sublime and virtuous narratives. The presentation of these works, allows for personal contemplation akin to the elegant and extravagant altarpieces of the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance eras. In fact, these two works of art are exemplary in bridging contemporary issues with age old concerns. In The Martyrs, four people are displayed across a long plasma screen quadriptych, each representing a martyr. The individuals are continually suffering and being martyred through exposure to the four classical elements: earth, air, fire and water.

The Martyrs comments on both the biblical and contemporary concept of martyrdom, and portrays a duality between action and passivity. All we can do is watch, while the four individuals in the film are being martyred for seven full minutes. Our inaction reflects our culture’s indifference to the pain of others. We have become inured to seeing and hearing about terrible tragedies in the 24 hour news cycle, that our ability to empathize might be compromised at the expense of its banality. On the other hand, the piece celebrates the righteousness of the individual by depicting the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity. Viola states:

“The Greek word for martyr originally meant ‘witness’. In today’s world, the mass media turns us all into witnesses to the suffering of others. The martyrs’ past lives of action can help illuminate our modern lives of inaction. They also exemplify the human capacity to bear pain, hardship and even death in order to remain faithful to their values, beliefs and principles. This piece represents ideas of action, fortitude, perseverance, endurance and sacrifice.”

Mary is a triptych of three plasma screens presenting a non-linear narrative of spiritual and earthly collectiveness. The piece represents mortality, the afterlife and the yearning for salvation, comfort and transformation throughout humanity. Nearly every culture has a similar faith based myth of an all encompassing figure who represents and embodies the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of human nature, while providing characteristics of infinite love, empathy, healing and fortitude. Perov explains:

“As the Mother, she is a timeless icon that transcends daily contemporary existence that flows endlessly behind her as time and space are displaced. As earthly Mary, she is a seeker, a traveler, who takes her place in a vast natural world, on a difficult journey that endows her with strength and compassion. The pièta of Mary is the embodiment of eternal sorrow. This vision of death among the ruins represents an ailing and wounded humanity that Mary carries alone, providing a place of refuge and solace in the intimate sharing of grief and pain that her image as an icon offers to those who seek comfort. As ‘container of the uncontainable,’ Mary encompasses all spiritual life.”

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Jay Milder, Bird Ark, 2007, acrylic & oil on Canvas, 30″ x 24.” Courtesy of the artist and Quogue Gallery, New York.

Julien Breton (Kalaam) and Jay Milder also integrate the everyday with the extraordinary, by artfully creating visual artworks that make use of alphabets and numerical systems.

Jay Milder paints letters and numbers as signifiers of spiritual messages, which are rooted in his quest to understand the natural world both inside and outside of its physical (known) realm. The letters and numbers are combined with bright chakra colors, sacred geometric shapes and recognizable figures (most commonly animals, humanoid faces and a vessel resembling an ancient ship), in order to express a Kabbalistic (mystical and metaphysical) and personal interpretation of biblical narratives and sociocultural topics.

In Kabbalah, letters and numbers have essential spiritual meanings and can be arranged in different configurations, which afford the reader multiple avenues to interpret their significance. Milder’s alphanumeric compositions, along with a rainbow-like color palette, allude to the covenant between the physical and metaphysical worlds. His paintings from the 1970s onward reference the narrative of Noah’s Ark. In a contemporary interpretation of the ancient narrative, Milder makes a correlation between the biblical flood and today’s climate crisis and societal corruption. In the biblical version of Noah’s Ark, the rainbow represents the covenant between God and humanity after the flood. It is our responsibility to maintain balance and harmony on Earth. In light of today’s dire environmental and social conditions, the rainbow has become polluted. We are experiencing actual floods and extinction events as our global waterways continue to warm and rise. In order to unblot the sullied rainbow, we need to reaffirm our covenant by being respectful and empathetic custodians to our natural environment. Milder’s bold colors, alphabetical, and numerical forms, express a message of hope and a call to action against an ominous backdrop. He wants us to understand that through a joyful and dedicated application of spirit and physical labor, we can repair what we have broken. In several of his paintings, a composition of the numbers ‘3, 6, 4, and 5’ can be added together to form the numerological value of the word ‘love.’ The idea that multiple expressions of love can provide salvation for us all is Milder’s overarching message.


Jay Milder, Zim Zum, 2003, acrylic and volcanic ash on canvas, 48″ x 54.”
Photograph by Mourrice Papi.

In some of Milder’s paintings the words “Ain Sop” or “Ayn Sof” can be deciphered. In Kabbalah, this word is understood as the divine prior to its self-manifestation in the production of any spiritual realm. Ein Sof can be translated as “no end,” “unending,” “there is no end,” or “infinite.”

Through an observation of the Zohar (the main text of the Kabbalah), personal spirituality and empirical processes, Milder realized that when “Ein Sof” and Keter (the head Sephirot of the Tree of Life in Kabbalah) meet they create black infinity. This is one reason why Milder has used black and white as the ground for his compositions, which allows for forms to appear simultaneously fixed to the ground and floating in space.  “Zim Zum,” another set of words that appear in some of his paintings refer to ‘Tzimtzum,’ meaning concealment and contraction. This term explains the doctrine of the 16th century Kabbalist rabbi Isaac Luria, who relates how God or Ein Sof, which is infinite began the process of creation by contracting a part of its infinite light to create a conceptual space in which finite realms (humankind) could exist.

In addition to Milder’s interpretive arrangement of mystical vocabulary and numerology, letters often spell out the names of loved ones.

Julien Breton’s unique utilization of calligraphy, an oft-sacred form of art used by Eastern and Western cultures, presents spiritual messages as both ephemeral and commonplace. Breton composes his calligraphic imagery within familiar environments, by working with various hand-held light sources and long-exposure photography techniques. In essence, Breton ‘paints’ using light by moving in a choreographed gestural manner, in order to create colorful forms that resemble Arabic and Eastern letters.

Although his letters resemble Islamic calligraphy, Breton creates his own spiritual and linguistic meaning for his calligraphy, which is derived from a brand new personal alphabet. Additionally, by placing his word based art against backdrops that are well known throughout culture (i.e. the Brooklyn Bridge, an open field, or wooded forest), Breton links the divine with tangible natural and synthetic realms.

Yayoi Kusama is another contemporary artist who blurs the lines and seeks to expand the visual discourse between the physical and metaphysical. According to Kusama, her signature polka dot motif and captivating Infinity Rooms, signify the relationship between human civilization and the vast, seemingly unending nature of the cosmos. Kusama stated: “I wanted to examine the single dot that was my own life.  One polka dot: a single particle among billions.”

Besides being a very popular site-specific destination, the Infinity Rooms completely alter the space which they occupy in an ethereal manner. Since the 1960s, Kusama has been creating these rooms using infinity mirrors –a pair of parallel mirrors that create a series of smaller and smaller reflections that appear to ebb and flow to infinity– and aesthetic forms and objects such as dots, hanging sculptural shapes and neon lights. Standing inside of the room, the viewer gazes into an environment that exhibits the illusion of being endless. The installation envelops us, as if we’re floating within the universe. It is an awe-inspiring experience, which poignantly and fantastically illuminates the yearning and desire to find one’s place within the large and vast corporeal and transcendental realms. Often times, finding our place within the all-encompassing world is a daunting task, however, the artist has the power to envision, create and/or re-present the world we live in a cohesive and harmonious perspective. Sometimes, that might even mean building a whole new world (or worlds).

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Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate, Memorial Park, Chicago IL. Photograph by JTClarkDesign

James Turrell and Anish Kapoor also create transcendental environments and works of art that become destinations and experiences for the public. Like Kusama’s Infinity Rooms, Anish Kapoor’s sculptural artworks alter the space they occupy, while allowing for a very personal and reflective viewing encounter. For example, Cloud Gate, which is installed in Chicago’s Memorial Park, is a ‘bean’ shaped sculpture that refracts and distorts Chicago’s skyline and the sky above. The monumental structure, which viewers can move around and underneath, presents an obtainable link between two seemingly unattainable realms – the earth and the heavens. Kapoor’s reflective sculptures explore the vastness of time and space, and enable us to contemplate and view our environment from multiple unique perspectives.

Alternatively, Kapoor’s use of Vantablack®, the purest and deepest black able to be produced (it absorbs 99.96% of light), gives the illusion of a void, or endless darkness. It also offers a meditative opportunity, where the viewer is likely to disappear into its seeming nothingness and into their own cognitive and emotional headspace.

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James Turrell, Meeting, MoMA PS1 installation. Photograph by Adam Zucker

As mentioned in an earlier post, James Turrell’s installations play with natural light as a means to inspire deep, personal, reflection. Turrell’s innovation comes from his practice as a Quaker. One of the major principals and practices of the Quakers is self-reflection and silent contemplation.

Quaker meetings for worship are fixated on a silent, meditative self-reflection and the sharing of revelations or messages with other ‘friends’ in the congregation. The experience sharing personal or spiritual thoughts with others is a very intimate occasion. When you take part in a meeting for worship, you are experiencing what Quaker’s call “The Light Within,” which is no doubt, where Turrell draws inspiration for his light-based installations. The light within is symbolic of a ‘divine’ presence within ourselves. Whether that presence is associated with an organized religion is entirely subjective. People may choose to share scripture, poetry, comment on current events, or suggest ways they wish to better themselves, help others, or work within the community (Zucker, 2018).

A commonality in the aforementioned works of art is the process of praxis, which is both an educational and spiritual exercise. It can be thought of and summarized as ‘reflective thinking,’ which is enacted by employing cognitive, social and emotional actions. Paulo Freire (1970) defined praxis as the “reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed.”

Educators utilize praxis as a means to prompt critical thinking and action. Artists also use this process. In both disciplines the following steps are involved:

1) Taking action.
2) Considering the impact of that action.
3) Scrutinizing and analyzing the action through reflection and formative assessment.
4) Revising, changing or re-presenting elements or plans, as a result of the assessment
5) Utilizing the entire process during the course of further and future actions.

In spirituality, praxis is evident in the work of theologians and faithful individuals who balance their divine worship with humanitarian action. When thinking about praxis in all contexts and environments, the mantra ‘practice what you preach’ comes to mind, which expresses the necessity for the world’s religious, cultural and educational frameworks to reflect upon the impact of their actions/policies/practices in light of the changing collective cultural conscious and adapt accordingly.

Employing spirituality in art and education requires an open-ended and open-minded foundation that supports inquiry, experiential learning and the liberal, self-directed acquisition of knowledge. Art not only describes what something looks like; it also conveys what something feels like. Through artistic forms of communication, such as symbolism, impressionism and expressionism, we get a sense of the essence of something rather than just its physical depiction.

In some of today’s schools, the negation of sensuality and emotion in favor of curricula rigidity, pedantic instruction and standardization, is creating well-groomed automatons (see: Darder, 2012). When students are conditioned to think, act and behave accordingly, in order to fulfill a set of quantitative assessments (i.e. standardized tests and rote memorization of facts/laws/structures) they are pigeonholed to either fit in with the status quo, or be designated as an outlier. This can obviously have a shattering impact on the student’s life because it labels them as being different, when in fact, students should be encouraged to ask big questions, challenge per-existing problematic conditions and bring their own personal values and insights into the subject matter they are studying across the curriculum.

Forcing children, adolescents, young adults and adults (at any stage in life), to fit within a particular predetermined framework, upholds oppressive systemic conditions. This is true for anyone who blindly follows doctrines (i.e. fundamentalism) without employing any form of critical thinking, meaningful learning, associative learning and active learning.

Those that choose alternative paths (note: I am talking about routes that aren’t self-destructive per se, but, which are anti-establishment, for reasons including standing up for social injustice) are not afforded the same rights and preference as those that are obedient. The cards are stacked against liberal thinkers who exhibit actions, which are the antithesis of the linear, austere and orderly culture of the status quo. We can easily look at history for examples of how individuals and groups have been publicly ridiculed, persecuted and even harmed for expressing beliefs against established norms.

While our society should fully champion diversity, it still operates in a highly binary manner, which is to say, that things are explored in very limited ways (i.e. the two party political system, religious or secular, rich or poor, good or bad, etc.). We need to change the paradigm to give equal precedence to enlightened thoughts and self-aware behaviors. We need to let the human spirit be expressed in our culture and in our schools. The arts and a progressive education, which includes spiritual and creative practices, permit good opportunities to make this an overarching reality.

“Spirituality in education refers to no more—and no less—than a deep connection between student, teacher and subject—a connection so honest, vital and vibrant that it cannot help but be intensely relevant.” Laura Jones (2005)

By including spirituality in the educational curricula, teachers and students can co-develop a deeper empathetic and compassionate relationship with the material they are studying, and make meaningful connections to how it relates to social, emotional and ethical issues (Jones, 2005). The work of the aforementioned artists (and art in general), prompts us to consider foundational spiritual questions such as ‘why do I exist,’ ‘what is the meaning of life?’ ‘how can I be be happy?’ and ‘how can I live a moral and liberated life?’ Addressing these questions, requires a combination of experiential living with the  yearning to discover the mystery of our individual and collective existence.

When students are able to relate their personal humaneness to the content within the curriculum, as well as to issues in the world around them, they are partaking in a liberated type of education, which will have a positive, lifelong impact.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Abbs, Peter. 2003. Against the Flow: Education, the arts and postmodern culture. Great Britain: Rutledge.

Beckett, Sister Wendy. 2007. Sister Wendy on Prayer. New York: Harmony.

Chan, Oliver. “The Point is Sister Wendy Approves of Piss Christ.” The Fine Tooth Column. 6 Nov. 2013.

Dammann, April. 2015. Corita Kent: Art and Soul. The Biography. Santa Monica, California: Angel City Press.

Darder, Antonia. “Schooling bodies: critical pedagogy and urban youth.” Fine Print. 35 (2) 2012. pp. 3-10.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 2007.

Jones, Laura. “What Does Spirituality in Education Mean?” Journal of College and Character. 6 (7), Oct. 2005.

Katz, Jonathan. “‘The Senators Were Revolted:’ Homophobia and the Culture Wars.” in A Companion to Contemporary Art Since 1945, ed. Amelia Jones. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. pp. 231-248.

Leroi-Gourhan, Andre, Michelson, Annette. “The Religion of the Caves: Magic or Metaphysics?”, The MIT Press, Vol, 37, October 1986, pp. 6-17.

Nash, R. J. 2002. Spirituality, ethics, religions, and teaching: A professor’s journey. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.

Attention to Details: Noticing Deeply Through Art


Mark Dion, installation view of Neukom Vivarium, 2006. Photo by Vmenkov

The art critic Ben Davis recently described the artist curated works at the 33 Bienal de Sao Paulo (components of an exhibition curated by Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro) as “eschewing spectacle in favor of a much more contemplative” experience, which is focused on using works of art to develop the viewer’s attention span (Davis, 2018). Davis stated:

“today’s endless slurry of bad news mixed with frenetic entertainment—which is replicated in the intellectual, optical and spatial overload of a lot of international art shows—tends to render the mind frantic. It paralyzes extended analysis by the same measure that it overpowers any more-than-superficial aesthetic experience. And so, art’s use as a space to train attention may be less superfluous than it seems, and worth salvaging.” (ibid, 2018)

In Pérez-Barreiro’s exhibition titled Affective Affinities, comprehensive scrutiny and deeply reflective assessments take priority over aesthetic convergence and art for art’s sake. Pérez-Barreiro selected seven artist/curators to curate ‘mini-exhibitions’ that feature their own work along with work by other artists of their choice. This open ended concept allows for significant affinities to be realized among a group of diverse modern and contemporary artists (and the inventor of Kindergarten, Friedrich Fröbel!).

Affective Affinities (on view through December 9, 2018), offers a respite to the banal, superfluous, abject, depressing and perverse headlines currently dominating Brazil’s cultural landscape. While art alone cannot solve all of society’s problems, taking time to look at and engage with artwork helps us to become better focused, make qualitative relationships and judgements (Eisner, 2002) and be more in-tune with our critical thinking skills. Because of these aforementioned benefits, art makes us more attentive to the complexities of a world in flux and therefore enables us to make adjustments to life’s challenges by crafting innovative solutions in collaboration with other disciplines.

Spectacle is all around us. We have access to vast amounts of information at our fingertips, however, the amount of misinformation and sensationalized media we are collectively subjected to is at an all time high. Too often, our obsession with spectacle translates to moments in culture where entertainment or scandal overshadows the potential teachable moments and reflective outcomes that works of art can provide. Modern Museums (such as Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, founded in 1677 and the Louvre Museum in Paris, founded in 1793) opened as public spaces where people of all social and economic statuses could go to learn about objects of artistic, cultural, historical, or scientific importance.  Some contemporary museums seem to have lost sight of this democratic ideology and have become sites of divisive controversy and exhibitions for entertainments sake. Instead of focusing on blockbuster exhibitions, or populist exhibitions, today’s museums should be designing shows that make viewing art relevant to the lives of the viewers and the diverse communities where the museums are located. Artworks and their curatorial incorporation into exhibitions should be culturally appropriate, serve an educational purpose, and all the while, their inclusion should remain open-ended enough to account for inquiry based viewing and mindful enduring understandings on the part of the gallery goer. In other words, artworks in museum exhibitions should hold our attention and inspire us to learn more about the content after we leave the museum.

One of the many important ‘Habits of Mind’ that art offers us is the ability to pay close attention to details or ‘noticing deeply.’ Most artists scrutinize each and every aspect of a work of art during the creative process. Whether they are drawing sketches for a painting or writing a proposal for a large-scale public art commission, artists meticulously plan, revise and consider many different facets and perspectives before their work is presented to the discerning public. Paying close attention to details continues to be an important aspect during the presentation of a work of art in the form of critiques by fellow artists, curators, art critics and anyone else who finds themselves standing in front of the artwork. In fact, the Feldman Method for Art Criticism requires the critic to spend a great deal of time with a work of art in order to truly engage with its stylistic and symbolic elements. Multiple viewings are typically required to fully describe, analyze, interpret and make judgements about an artwork.

Art education teaches us to pay close attention and to become adept ‘part to whole’ and ‘whole to part’ thinkers. A mastery of inductive (part to whole) and deductive (whole to part) reasoning is necessary to our participation in daily life. Mastery of anything requires education and experience. Similar to other areas of growth such as speech and movement, we develop artistically through “phases.” That is to say that a child’s (or older beginner’s) understanding of pictorial and symbolic issues transform through time with experience and education. A good framework for assessing artistic development is the ‘multi-dimensional model’ of artistic development, suggested by Linda Louis (2013). This model acknowledges a key fundamental element of artistic development, which is that exploration leads to discovery, which leads to insight. An earlier philosophy regarding artistic development came from Viktor Lowenfeld, who was a pioneering theorist on the way children’s art progressed through what he called “stages.” While his model of artistic development inspired the contemporary multi-dimensional model, the multi-dimensional model provided by Linda Louis is more apt because it recognizes that children do not fit neatly into preconditioned stages and can be both phase one and phase two (or three and four and so on) learners at the same time…The six phases of artistic development are: 

  1. Explorers/Discoverers
  2. Deliberators/Planners
  3. Communicators
  4. Inventors
  5. Illusionists
  6. Expressers

In the multidimensional model of artistic development (Louis, 2013), young artists develop as inductive thinkers around phase number two (Deliberators/Planners). They create imagery and symbolic meaning by piecing together parts to form a whole. This is why you’ll generally observe them creating a figure that is depicted in multiple parts (separate shapes for each body part and confined shapes) rather than render a whole interconnected image. Additionally, Deliberators/Planners are becoming quite observant of their environment, therefore, attention to details are given significance within their artwork (skin tones, facial features, accessories, etc). As the child moves from phase two into phase three, they begin to think deductively, while shifting to inductive thinking as needed. The most important element in their work is their desire to be understood as a communicator of information and therefore, they focus on image making using conventions that serve depiction.

As the child receives more artistic education and experience, they become meaningfully expressive, which means that they feel their art must say something significant. In other words, both the thematic concept and aesthetic experience informs their artwork. They consider their work to be a fluid body (series, period, style), which takes the viewer’s experience and perception into account. In fact, they are able to view their own work through a critical and reflective lens. They’re interested in a cultural discourse, which includes the art world (the history of art, as well as the current visual culture). Often times, they’ll appropriate works of art or iconography from visual culture to make a statement related to their experience within the cultural landscape. It is more important than ever to qualify this phase with prior artistic learning (throughout each phase, students are building skills and exploring materials in a developmentally appropriate manner), so that the students can utilize their combined artistic experience to create personally meaningful work. 

Professional artists seamlessly fuse inductive and deductive thinking in the planning, communicating, inventing and expressing of their artwork. Making art is a multi-disciplinary process, which starts with a ‘big idea’ (a.k.a an inspiration, framework, theory or thematic focus) and continues with essential questions, within which the artist must reflect the most important issues, problems and debates related to their big idea. After the artist poses significant questions and gains insight on themes that they want their work to address, they embark upon realizing the aesthetic and expressive strategies they will use to communicate these issues.

In educational settings, the ‘big idea’ directs the information and concepts that are included in a curriculum. It is followed by essential questions, which are open-ended, exploratory and allow for student-centered inquiry. Finally, enduring understandings are what makes the big ideas and essential questions relevant in the lives of each student.

Both professional artists and professional educators have to hone in on the necessary details that are imperative to successfully express big ideas, essential questions and enduring understandings to a diverse group of individuals. A successful work of art should have relevance and capture the attention of its viewers, while a successful curriculum should be relevant and engaging to students. This is why Ben Davis argues that utilizing art to train our attention can be a good thing. While all forms of art can be beneficial in strengthening our attention span, there are some artists whose work especially requires a high level of attention. Two of these contemporary artists are Mark Dion and Alisha Wessler.

Mark Dion’s work is the epitome of multi-disciplinary art-centered inquiry. Dion’s practice blurs the boundaries between art and science in an effort to explore the objective and subjective nature of our natural environment and human psyche. This is the case with his most renowned work of art titled Neukom Vivarium (2006). At first glance, a viewer will recognize this work as a fallen tree, covered in moss and other plants. Some might recognize the 80 foot tree as a Western hemlock, which is a native species on the West Coast of the United States. It is Dion’s intention for the viewer to inquire about the significant meaning of installing a giant tree at the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, Washington. Dion acknowledged this to be true when he stated:

“I think that one of the important things about this work is that it’s really not an intensely positive, back-to-nature kind of experience. In some ways, this project is an abomination. We’re taking a tree that is an ecosystem—a dead tree, but a living system—and we are re-contextualizing it and taking it to another site. We’re putting it in a sort of Sleeping Beauty coffin, a greenhouse we’re building around it. And we’re pumping it up with a life support system—an incredibly complex system of air, humidity, water and soil enhancement—to keep it going. All those things are substituting what nature does, emphasizing how, once that’s gone, it’s incredibly difficult, expensive and technological to approximate that system—to take this tree and to build the next generation of forests on it. So, this piece is in some way perverse. It shows that, despite all of our technology and money, when we destroy a natural system, it’s virtually impossible to get it back. In a sense, we’re building a failure.” (See:

Apart from the overarching big idea of humanity’s impact on the environment, Dion wants us to pay close attention to the details that are not so obvious, such as the smallest elements of an ecosystem. These facets such as lichen, small insects and microscopic bacteria, are often harder to discern via the naked eye, and are largely overlooked when gazing at the gargantuan specimen of Tsuga heterophylla. While the hemlock tree’s life came to an end, new life has formed and continues to grow on and around the fallen tree, albeit due to human interaction such as climate control in the form of the artist built greenhouse enclosing the tree, essentially keeping the complex ecosystem alive on life support. One essential question in Neukom Vivarium is “what makes up an ecosystem?” Dion’s answer to the essential question of “what makes up an ecosystem?” is revealed by providing visitors with magnifying glasses and illustrated field guides featuring the organisms that the viewer is likely to see while gazing at the tree through the lens of the magnifying glass. This is where an attention to details formulate significant meaning within the work of art. Dion engages us to explore and spend quality time with the thriving yet delicate ecosystem that he has preserved. We alternate between our magnifying glasses and our field guides and our attention becomes focused on identifying and observing the various specimens of animal and plant life. We can see the complex communities of insects, lichen and bacteria living as if they were in their natural habitat. Our attention span is held steadfast by the wonders of the natural environment. Perhaps, during the elongated moment of careful and astute observation, we forget that we’re inside a human made environment and that everything we’re looking at would cease to live if removed from its life support. However, the moment we step back and put down our magnifying glasses, our awareness of the tragic situation comes to light.

If we hadn’t experienced this installation and we were just walking past a dead tree in the forest, would we consider the possibility that there is an abundance of life within the confines of this tree? If we didn’t take the time to scrutinize the tree’s nooks and crannies, we’d likely miss out on the thriving life within the fallen tree. And while it may seem like there is an abundance of other trees surrounding this deceased tree, would we realize that this complex ecosystem, which nature incredibly maintains, is in danger of vanishing before our very eyes due to our civilization’s polluting of the elements (air, water, humidity and soil) that are needed to sustain all natural life on Earth? The enduring understanding in Dion’s installation is that life cannot sustain itself without the basic elements, which include healthy air, humidity, water and soil. Once these elements are gone or negatively altered, it will be nearly impossible to get them back. Dion’s work raises our consciousness and awareness about nature’s intricacies and how fragile our natural resources truly are in our hands.


Alisha Wessler, detail of From Afar It Is An Island (Case 1), 2013,
aqua resin, pigment, cardboard, sodium chloride, wax, clay, fabric, thread, wood, bone, fur, leather, citrus peels, petrified carrot, bird feet, dried kelp, milkweed seed pod, modeling material, foam, glassine envelopes, polystyrene, tissue paper, found hardware, insect pins, iron and wood stands, museum vitrines. Courtesy of the artist.

Another artist whose work requires an elongated attention span is Alisha Wessler. Things are not always what they seem in her intricate constructs, which blur the lines between reality and fantasy, biology and cryptozoology and fossil and artifact. In order to take in Wessler’s highly detailed work, a viewer needs to exercise a great deal of scrutiny.  For example, Objects and their Doubles (2017) presents tactile objects –such as aqua resin, a plastic umbrella handle, metal rod, wood, flattened pinecone, polymer clay, iron hook, rope, embroidered thread, dental mold, rusted wire, rock, water caltrop (devil pod), leather glove, leather glove tip, steel rod, cholla cactus skeleton, milkweed seedpod, human hair, pigment, dried plant, paper, methyl cellulose, fishing net, fabric and thread– juxtaposed with the artist’s technical rendering of that same object in watercolor and ink. Similarly to the work of Joseph Kosuth, Wessler employs visual tautology, where representational objects appear the same but are manifested through different materials. At first glance, the eye is tricked into thinking that these materials are not what they seem.

Wessler is very skilled at manipulating materials to make graphite look like lace (Pictures on Surrounding Objects, 2013), and objects like citrus peels, petrified carrots, birds feet, dried kelp and milkweed seed pods, to resemble ancient relics that could have likely been uncovered during an archeological dig (From Afar It Is An Island [Case I], 2013). If you casually walk by the pedestal or display cases containing her work, you’re likely to miss the hidden properties and characteristics latent within these seemingly inscrutable works of art. If a viewer pays careful attention to all the fine nuances, akin to the way a keen archeologist studies arcane antiquities, they will come to the realization that these ‘artifacts’ are in fact, ordinary objects imbued with novel taxonomies.

Wessler’s artistic process is also very detail and time oriented. In order to manipulate everyday objects into astonishing hybrids, she utilizes an alchemy-like art methodology where materials are ‘cured’ and chemically transformed through dehydration or crystallization (to name a few of the experimental processes Wessler employs), after which they’re further manipulated by more traditional artistic actions like painting, sculpting (additive and reductive) and sewing. Wessler’s big idea is that ordinary objects have extraordinary underlying qualities. Her essential questions include “how can I fuse two opposing elements together to create new and mysterious hybrids?” and “how can materials be manipulated in uncanny ways to express indeterminate dualities?” The enduring understandings are that things are not always what they seem and that artists can create symbolic new meanings and perspectives through an experimental transformation and repurposing of materials.

Throughout the course of this blog, the various benefits of creating art and learning through art have been explored. The multi-dimensional phases of artistic development (mentioned earlier in this post) illustrates how explorations in creating art lead to discoveries and insights, which enable highly significant and personal modes of expression. Because artists always seek big ideas, ask essential questions and synthesize important ideas and core processes (enduing understandings), creating art makes us life-long learners inside and outside of the classroom or art studio. From the cited examples of artworks by Dion and Wessler, it is evident that viewing art is also largely beneficial to our lives. Studies have shown that spending ample time identifying and articulating the intricate layers and details within works of art improves our cognition, our ability to think critically and our emotional well-being. In an age of 24 hour news cycles and constant burlesque distractions, the benefits of creating, presenting, viewing and responding to art are seriously needed.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Davis, Ben. “What will art galleries look like in the future?” The Australian, 15 April 2016,

Davis, Ben. “The Bienal de Sao Paulo Makes a Bold Attempt to Change the Way We Look at Art. Can It Work?” Artnet, 17 Sept. 2018,

Louis, Linda L. “What Children Have in Mind: A Study of Early Representational Development in Paint.” Studies in Art Education, vol. 46, no. 4, 2005, pp. 339–355. JSTOR,